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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: The Tyranny of Typicality

There is an old saying, often attributed to Mark Twain but apparently of unknown origin, that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. The problem with the latter, as I have always seen it, is that it seeks to find norms in populations within which there can be considerable diversity. These in turn are often used to establish policies that tend to most greatly benefit individuals who are closest to those norms. Such policies can either evolve naturally or else be actively implemented by governments, organizations, or other agencies. In either case, they will ideally (if not always) result in “the greatest good for the greatest number” (the fundamental principle of utilitarian philosophy) or, as interpreted by Mr. Spock in Star Trek II, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Karl Wittig, PE

Karl Wittig, PE

This is well and good for those who are close to the norm or, at least, not too far from it. But what about the “outliers” (to use the statistical term), who are so distant from the bulk of the population that they are actually discarded as data points in many statistical analyses? As a person on the autism spectrum, this is of great concern to me. Autistics are often characterized as “atypical” – there is even a popular television series by that name about the lives of young autistics, not to mention Jesse A. Saperstein’s hilarious memoir about growing up on the spectrum. Essentially, autistics as a group are often seen as “peculiar,” “eccentric,” “odd,” and “strange,” not to mention a variety of less-flattering and even derogatory terms. In short, we are usually identified by our differences or, to put it in statistical terms, our deviations from the norm.

This is rarely if ever done for any other demographic, whether racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexual, or even other disabilities. As far as I can tell, it only happens with the autism community. Apparently, some of our differences are so pronounced that they are conspicuous to many parts of society, even when not particularly severe. Matters are further complicated by the fact that, even as there is far more commonality among autistics themselves than with the general population, significant deviations exist between ourselves in many categories – there are very good reasons why the common saying that “if you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum” is so popular among autistics.

The Disadvantages of Being Atypical

All of this can have adverse consequences for many of us on the spectrum. Many (if not most) autistics have unpleasant, and even painful, memories of being marginalized because of personal peculiarities, and often were victims of (sometimes horrible) bullying. They also experience a lifetime of not fitting into communities that they presumably belong to, if not outright being marginalized or even ostracized.

In the school environment, our different (and varied) learning styles often result in academic difficulties, on top of which many autistics also have co-morbid learning disabilities. Even twice-exceptional students like myself sometimes found school very unpleasant because our unusual and specialized interests did not conform to the standard curriculum (this was certainly the case with me). For all these reasons, the advent of individual education plans (IEPs) has been of tremendous benefit to autistic students. Additionally, our social skills deficits make it difficult for us to become socialized with the general school population. The result of all this is that our differences make us stand out more conspicuously among more typical classmates than just about any other category of students.

The work environment, however, is probably the most problematic for many autistics. Unemployment figures for autistics have always been alarmingly high and are often said to be higher than they are for other disability communities. I personally consider those numbers to be in error because there are quite a few successfully employed autistics who simply were never identified, let alone diagnosed (another failure of statistics!). Nevertheless, far too many autistics have difficulty finding and keeping jobs. In most cases, this has everything to do with not interviewing well, interpersonal issues with bosses and co-workers, inappropriate behaviors, or running afoul of workplace culture and politics, and little to do with incompetence, negligence, insubordination, malfeasance, or any of the more common reasons for loss of employment. Once again, our difficulties in this area are anything but typical.

Even in daily life, our atypical differences frequently rear their ugly head. Most autistics have lived their entire lives with deficits in social skills and daily living skills, which are far less common in the general population. That this is the case is evidenced by the fact that such skills are rarely taught in schools (or anywhere else for that matter) to anyone without serious intellectual or other disabilities; they are seen as being so basic that people are literally expected to learn them on their own in the course of living their lives. Yet again, deficits that are quite common in our community are considered so unusual that they are not even addressed.

Why Does All This Happen?

Since my diagnosis 20 years ago, I have wondered what it is about autism that makes those of us on the spectrum so atypical. It recently occurred to me that the high degree of normative behavior in the typical population is no accident but may be the result of active conformity on the part of most people. In other words, they can readily identify the prevalent or expected norms and adapt their behavior to satisfy them as much as possible; this constitutes a form of “self-correcting mechanism.” Autistics, however, are far less able to do this.

Deficits in communications, particularly nonverbal communications, are quite common in autistics. As such, they are less able to recognize and sometimes even perceive how the vast majority of people in their surroundings behave. In more technical terms, the feedback mechanism that enables the above-mentioned adaptation is impaired in autistics, who consequently will have great difficulty conforming to the norms of their social environment.

All of this is further complicated by the impaired theory-of-mind that is so common among autistics. This means that, in addition to not being fully aware of what is typical and expected in their environment, they cannot appreciate how their non-normative behaviors are seen by or affect more typical peers. The additional fact that their nonverbal communications are easily and often misinterpreted does not help matters either.

The upshot of all this is that, for autistics to be integrated into their communities, and into society as a whole, there will need to be much greater public understanding of the personal differences of autistics, not to mention improved tolerance of those differences. At the same time, autistics must be made to better appreciate the effects that some of their behaviors can have on others in their communities, and will need to be better educated in a variety of areas for which such education is rarely if at all available.

Karl Wittig, PE, is Advisory Board Chair for Aspies For Social Success (AFSS). Karl may be contacted at kwittig@earthlink.net.

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